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Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Casual Critic — Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women

Short stories seem like the perfect hors d'oeuvre for a writer or a reader. A way to practice your craft or get that good feeling of reading something literary without too much pain. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

A while back I tried to enhance both my reading and writing habits by focusing on the short story. I'll spare you my writing struggles, but I actually believe reading short stories can be more difficult than reading novels, just as writing short stories is in some ways harder than writing novels. Of course, I've never had fiction of any kind professionally published, so maybe I should just shut up.

Anyway, I recently put my short story efforts on hold because I was having more success with novels. It's probably just me, but short stories come with too much pressure. I always feel like you're supposed to have all of the power, meaning, art, and whatever else a novel offers in 10 pages. But, I needed something short to read, and Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women came highly recommended, so I gave it a shot.

Only after reading it did I realize I already owned Hemingway: The Short Stories, which included every story I'd just read. While research didn't return my wasted cash, it suggested that this, his second collection of short stories, helped solidify Hemingway's reputation as one of the major writers of the 1920s. It also offers some prime examples of what I love and loathe about short stories.

"The Killers" is what short stories should be all about in my humble opinion. It pulls you in to a simple environment and offers a self-contained story with an ending that leaves you thinking. Self-contained is the key phrase for me. It sounds like an obvious element of any text, especially short stories, but it's not. Just read "Hills Like White Elephants" — the story never reveals what it's about. You can't even say that it suggests what it's about unless you really delve into the symbolism of the story's surroundings. Only research confirmed that the couple is discussing abortion.

It may be argued that there just aren't many casual readers of short fiction, making strictly text-centered readings unimportant. I just think any writing needs to have its meaning at least directly alluded to in the text. Research, allusion, symbolism, and the like are wonderful parts of literature. But if the meaning of a story you wrote is only grasped by knowledge of something external, I think you're a practicing literary snob.

"Fifty Grand" and "The Undefeated" are interesting contrasts for me. Both are about sports figures grabbing the last bit of value — be it glory or cash — they can get from their sport. My familiarity with boxing made "Fifty Grand" a great read, yet the latter story did little for me as I know nothing about bullfighting. It made me wonder how much an author should pull a reader over the hurdle of such unfamiliarity. However, my enjoyment of "Fifty Grand," which offered no more explanation of boxing than was offered for bullfighting in "The Undefeated," suggests it's not really the author's concern.

Though not quite on the same level as "Hills Like White Elephants," the stories "An Alpine Idyll" and "A Simple Enquiry" also put too much on the reader. The reader certainly grasps the story easily enough, but there's just nothing special or overly interesting about them. Any meaning given each story seems to come from the reader's desire to put value on the events described. While unfamiliarity with the subject of each taint my view, I also felt "A Pursuit Race," "A Simple Enquiry," "Che Ti Dice La Patria," "In Another Country," and "Banal Story," lacked punch.

However, "Today Is Friday," "A Canary for One," "Ten Indians," and "Now I Lay Me," approach "The Killers" enough to make this collection at least worth reading. Each invites the reader in, offers a setting that is quickly discerned, and the story says something worthwhile about its characters.

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